Social Arts: Balancing Virtues

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” -Goethe

I love this quote by Goethe. We all notice that sometimes we’re more of our “highest selves” than others: when we get enough sleep, when we’re getting support and fun from our friends and spouses, when we get enough time for ourselves, we are able to be much closer to our “best selves” with our children: we roll with the punches, we use humor and compassion to help them through hard times, and we enjoy ourselves and them. And we’ve all noticed that children are sometimes much closer to their “best selves” than others. One of our tasks, as parents and caregivers, is to help children be their “best selves” as often as possible. One way to do this is to set them up for success (make sure they get enough sleep, have a strong daily rhythm, follow through with support when they need help doing things, be our “best selves” as often as possible, etc.).

But there’s another piece to helping children grow into their “best selves.” This has to do with helping them become balanced in their strengths. This lesson really sank in for me from an offhand comment by a friend. We were at an early childhood conference together, and between workshops we were eating lunch and talking about the workshops we had attended. She had a son who was six years old, very intelligent, very intense and somewhat overwhelming. Interested in everything, he always wanted to be the center of attention, and often dominated conversations. She said, “My workshop leader made an interesting comment. She works with a group call The Virtues Project, and she said that it sounds like my son has an excess of enthusiasm, which is a virtue. Instead of trying to dampen down his enthusiasm, I could work to strengthen other virtues that would balance him out. In this case, she suggested that I strengthen his sense of respectfulness.” Knowing her son as I did, I was absolutely astounded. Yes! That was exactly what was needed! What an incredible way of viewing the situation.

Using this idea, it’s possible to look at any behavior that is ‘too much’ as a virtue, which is calling out for a balancing virtue: A whiny child might need to strengthen her patience: with patience, a child who knows what she wants or needs can be a joy. A child who doesn’t do what you ask might need to learn self-control, or respect: with respect, being strong-willed is a great strength. A child who cries a lot might need to learn resilience, or bravery: a resilient child who experiences things deeply is a blessing.

The virtues don’t correspond one-to-one: to help a child who is bossy, for example, you might encourage him to develop empathy, or respectfulness, or helpfulness, or even fairness. The trick is to think of which one might really catch your child’s imagination: being a knight who helps those who are weaker than he is might be just the image your child needs. Then you can develop that virtue of helpfulness with your child in all areas of his life: you two might bake cookies to take to the old-folks’ home, let him help his little brother dress to go outside, help you carry in the groceries, think ahead to what might help dad when he gets home or his teacher at school. Tell stories about other people who go out of their way to be helpful, notice out loud when you see people being helpful, and generally work to make it a value in your family. Your bossy son can grow into this image, putting his strong organizational skills to work helping those around him and becoming someone that everyone wants to have around. Supporting children to grow into their best selves through developing balance will serve them well in the realm of the Social Arts.


  1. Michelle P says

    This is wonderful, Faith! Can you expand on this, perhaps? I think I need concrete examples for cultivating Respectfulness. I feel as though your friends son is the mirror image of my little boy, and would like to cultivate that virtue of respect, but I’m not sure where to start!


    • Hi Michelle,

      Stories that are good for this include “Sweet Porridge” (in the version I tell, they have to say “Please cook, little pot, please cook,” and “Please stop, little pot, please stop!” but the mother forgets and says, “stop, little pot, stop,” then “little pot, stop right now!” then, “Little pot, stop-stop-stop-stop!” After each one, I say, “Do you think the pot stopped?” And the kids chorus, “No!!!!” It’s fun). Another good story about respect/politeness is “Mother Holle.”

      You can also tell a story about when you were a child, and you were disrespectful, and things didn’t turn out how you wanted, but when you mended your ways, things went better. If you can’t remember one, you can make one up, as long as it’s something similar to what might have happened.

      You can also play games about respect with your son. You might say, “It’s time to tidy up your room. I’ll be the Mean Mom.” Then pretend to yell at him. “You clean up this room right now. RIGHT NOW!!!” He will probably start cracking up. Then you say, “Wait, that’s not the kind way to ask! How about this:” Then take a really whiny voice, “Come on…please?….please?…..come on, clean your room….” Look at him. “Is that the kind way to ask? No?” Then stand up straight and say in a nice voice, “OK, now I’m ready to say it kindly. It’s time to clean up your room. Shall we do it together, or would you like to do it all by yourself?” Then, when he is yelling or whining, you can turn it into this same game, to give him a chance to say it again in a kind way.

      Another thing you can do is to brainstorm with him about kind/respectful things to do for other people.

      Also, help him practice. If you’re about to go to the zoo, you might say, “You’re big enough now…would you like to give him the money and get the tickets for us? You’ll have to be very respectful…You’ll hand him the money and say, ‘Three tickets, please.’ Then when he gives them to you, you’ll say, ‘Thank you.'” He might become too shy to really do it, and that’s fine, you can do it, exactly the way you described. He’ll feel like he’s doing it through you, and it may show up in his play later.

  2. i really like the different mom game. am going to try this with my 9 year old too, who is practicing her cheekiness boundaries. i think that sometimes people don’t see how they sound. This game gives me a chance to be a mirror in a respectful way. am also going to try telling a story at the lunch table. that is a nice way to get a message across and help me wait patiently for my 2 year old to finish his meal

  3. Sarah Morrison says

    Oh, I love the concept of strengthening the complimentary value instead of squashing the overabundant one! It makes me think of a color wheel and the secondary & tertiary colors that compliment the primaries.
    Now, to discern which are the values that need to be strengthened to help my little friends have more balance!

  4. I have to admit a bit of confusion.. aren’t we trying to teach them the complimentary in the hopes of stopping the not-awesome quality (whining, disrespect etc)? Or did I miss the point and it’s just about looking at it (the glass is half full)?

    I’m going to be challenged in the creativity department – so I’ll look at the sweet porridge and other items I can find here.

    Faith, if you have specific pointers on whining, I would like to hear that! I am thinking though our kids do what works so it’s learned. (Though perhaps whining is the toddler equivalent of the baby cry). I would love any stories and techniques for the kids as well as any advice for the parents to help us know how our own behaviour contributed to the kids’ behaviour and how to change that!

    On this topic, one thing I have found that works, and it’s not rocket science: Complimenting my daughter when I catch her doing the desirable behaviour. I think the kids really do want to please us and don’t we all love a genuine compliment?

    • Kim, thanks for asking this. Yes, the goal/object is to change the negative behavior; however, I’m suggesting that we do this by developing complementary strengths, rather than attempting to merely squash the annoying behavior. A big part of this is that I’ve noticed that people are more willing to change if they feel understood. So look at why your daughter might be whiny. Is she whiny because she experiences things deeply, and things feel overwhelming? Or is she whiny because she knows exactly what she wants, and she has trouble being flexible? Or is she whiny for some other reason? The reason that she feels compelled to whine in the first place can affect your long-term strategy of how to strengthen her so she doesn’t feel like she needs to whine anymore

      For addressing the actual behavior of whining, I’ve found this technique to be pretty effective: when I hear that whiny tone of voice, I’ll stop what I’m doing and look directly at her, and say, “I’m listening. What would you like to say to me?” Then I’ll listen and respond thoughtfully. This is often enough. If it becomes a habit (that she’s using that whiny voice to get my attention), I’ll offer another way for her to get my attention: “If you want me to stop and listen to you, you can just say, ‘Miss Faith, can I ask you something?'” And then when she uses the phrase I give her, I make sure that I always respond.

      Of course, just listening and responding thoughtfully doesn’t always stop the whining, especially if my response is disappointing (for example, if she wanted something and I say no). In that case, I’ll offer some compassion, and then help them move on: “What can you find to do instead?” (see my post on recovering from disappointment).

      Does this help?

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